(NaturalNews) Continuing illegal sales of genetically modified foods in parts of China has led the government's Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) to order local officials to crack down and track possible GMO testing facilities.
The South China Morning Post reports that a recently published government document spells out the ministry's wishes. It instructs agricultural supervisors to look for potential unauthorized genetic modification testing sites at research institutes, corporations and universities.
In addition, the MoA also ordered local governments to establish food supervision over GM foods located in the marketplace.
The central communist government in Beijing has only approved two genetically modified plants -- an insect-resistant cotton and a virus-resistant papaya, and they are to be harvested solely for commercial purposes. But the MoA has acknowledged that there has been an "illegal spread of GM food in certain areas" of the country, which in turn has sparked public renewed debate.
As reported by the Post:
Under pressure from rapidly increasing food consumption, Beijing favours a "proactive attitude" on GM technology research but is careful about actual commercial sales.
Last month, environmental group Greenpeace said an independent laboratory's test of 15 samples of rice bought randomly from markets in Wuhan showed that four contain GM varieties. Other illegal sales of GM crops have been reported in recent years.
The agriculture ministry said it wants "comprehensive, systematic and thorough" supervision at every stage of the food production process -- experimentation, examining varieties of crops and foods, production of foods and processing, as well as sales.
The MoA ordered harsh punishments for anyone who failed to label their foods as genetically modified, according to regulations.
"We hope that the MoA will make substantial efforts to find out how illegal GMO crops leaked out and stop this at the source," Wang Jing, Food and Agriculture Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, told the Post.
Zhu Zhen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, said the MoA has a history of being very strict in its regulation of GMO foods and testing. He added that the ministry has punished a number of companies and institutions recently for non-standardized planting of GM crops in testing fields, but not all details of those actions have been publicized.
If the government would not remain so secretive about such cases, Zhu said, it might help educate the public so they would better understand supervision of the technology.
Genetic modification of crops, seeds and foods in general remains controversial around the world. On the mainland of China, officials and ordinary citizens alike have voiced a number of concerns that GMO crops could cause unforeseen health problems and damage to humans as well as the environment (both of which are already happening) such as introducing engineered genes in the wild that might then mutate.
The Post noted that the Chinese central commission has raised awareness about its stance on the issue and has promoted the acceptance of GM technology through typical government media apparatuses like the People's Daily and China Central Television.
Greenpeace has welcomed the MoA's decision to crack down.
"We hope that the [ministry]... will make substantial efforts to find out how illegal GMO crops leaked out and stop this at the source," said Jing.
China imposed new GMO regulations in 2011, but even then experts questioned just how effective they would be. Then, as now, groups concerned about the spread of GMOs in the world's most populous country were not confident that any measures would be uniformly and effectively enforced, Reuters reported.